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To boost engagement among frontline Gen Zers, look to tech

Steven Kramer, WorkJam CEO
Steven Kramer
Steven Kramer is CEO and cofounder of WorkJam, which was named one of the TIME100 Most Influential Companies in 2023. Kramer has more than 20 years of executive leadership experience driving results and developing disruptive technologies for the retail industry.

In 2023, Gen Zers were the generation most often blamed for fueling trends like “quiet quitting” and “lazy-girl jobs,” but these negative workplace behaviors are more common among disaffected young corporate workers rather than among employees working on the frontline in factories, warehouses, restaurants and retail stores.

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That’s because hourly workers usually work right next to colleagues or customers who are counting on them to perform consistently—and if a disengaged frontline employee does the bare minimum, there’s usually an immediate and highly visible negative effect. If a retail associate quietly quits, a line of four customers at checkout can quickly grow to 20, half of whom might drop their baskets and leave instead of waiting to pay … and then head straight to social media to complain about the store experience.

It’s not that young frontline workers feel less disengaged overall than their desk-based counterparts. They’re simply more likely to leave a job when they’re not feeling motivated and happy than engage in whatever passive-aggressive workplace behavior is currently trending on TikTok.

With unemployment hovering at historic lows over recent months, hiring managers in industries such as food service, leisure and hospitality, manufacturing, logistics and retail face continued challenges in attracting and retaining frontline employees. That means it’s always an optimal time for companies in these sectors to take a fresh look at how they hire, manage and develop their Gen Z frontline employees.

Empower Gen Z engagement with technology

To best engage Gen Z frontline employees, enterprises need to understand what makes these younger workers tick and create policies, solutions and incentives that align with their unique priorities. Since they’re digital natives who rely on their smartphones to facilitate every aspect of life, equipping them in the workplace with the kinds of digital tools and apps they use outside of work is an obvious first step.

Digital platforms are available today that drive frontline productivity and engagement and facilitate the delivery of benefits and programs that especially appeal to the youngest generation of employees.

Here are some of the other top ways employers of large frontline workforces can leverage workplace technology to attract better and retain Gen Z hourly employees:

Provide greater autonomy and flexibility

Many Gen Zers expect more autonomy in the workplace than older generations did at their age. As the Great Resignation demonstrated, they’re perfectly willing to hop jobs when they feel they’re just a number to an employer.

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In addition, they’re often looking for flexibility in their work schedule because they’re balancing shifts at their frontline job with school, family responsibilities or a side hustle. According to an April 2023 Bankrate survey, 53% of Gen Zers have a side hustle, so employers are wise to support these Zoomers’ entrepreneurial inclinations and provide them with the scheduling flexibility they seek.

Suppose enterprises enable frontline staff to trade shifts on their own via a digital scheduling tool. In that case, it’s even better, as it puts the power and convenience of shifting schedules in employees’ own hands, with no need for managers to spend hours rejiggering schedules manually each week.

Communicate clearly about the company’s values

Gen Zers are often described as values-driven, and many are looking to work for companies with a mission and purpose they can get behind. To engage and inspire these younger workers, enterprises should make sure their reasons for existing, beyond the obvious profit imperative, are crystal clear and feature prominently in internal communications.

Employers should also connect the dots to clearly show how their benefits, policies and priorities fit into their overall mission. And since Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history, employers are wise to not only prioritize DE&I in hiring and operations but also to communicate about these kinds of initiatives to staff regularly.

In addition, Zers are well known to prize mental wellness, so employers win when they communicate how they support frontline employees’ mental wellbeing. Lululemon has demonstrated leadership on this front by creating a mental wellbeing advisory board that aims to develop best practices and improve outcomes for employees and communities.

When messages go out from the C suite, it’s important that both frontline hourly employees and desk-based, salaried employees receive the same messages at the same time. While office staff may have constant access to a company’s intranet, frontline employees can access messages from executives more quickly and easily via a workplace app, so leaders should always push out information to hourly staff rather than just posting it on the company intranet site and expecting associates to find it there.

Learn how leading organizations craft people-centric cultures to attract and retain Gen Z workers during HRE’s upcoming EPIC Conference, April 24-26, in Las Vegas. Click here to register.

Make sure communication channels with Gen Zers are two-way

Gen Zers also prioritize openness and transparency and want to have an ongoing, two-way conversation with the decision-makers at their companies. It’s important to these younger workers that executive leadership is willing to listen to their ideas and concerns, so employers are wise to encourage Gen Z associates to provide direct feedback and input on company initiatives via the same kind of digital communication channels that desk-based workers typically use.

Provide the instant recognition younger workers crave

Gen Zers tend to look for frequent feedback and immediate recognition for a job well done. Employers that leverage technology to provide guidance and encouragement—such as by awarding an employee a digital badge immediately when they complete certain tasks—are catering to Gen Z workers’ need for instant gratification while continually driving engagement over the long term.

Prioritize upskilling and career development

Many Gen Z hourly workers want their employers to provide training and development opportunities that will allow them to advance their careers, earn higher wages and enjoy more job security.

A 2022 survey of 3,000 hourly and salaried employees found that 74% of Gen Z and millennial respondents were considering leaving their employer due to a lack of upskilling and career development options. The findings suggest that companies that clearly map potential career paths in their organization and guide frontline employees through the training and steps needed to advance are ahead of the game.

By offering digital training and upskilling modules that hourly staff can access via a workplace app on their phone, companies can proactively demonstrate their commitment to their Gen Z frontline employees’ ongoing career development. These modules enable frontline workers to pursue additional learning and strengthen their knowledge and skills at their convenience, sending the message that upskilling is an ongoing opportunity constantly available to all associates. Companies that prioritize the development of digital training content that’s sticky, fun and engaging will be one more step ahead of competitors.

Offer earned-wage benefits

As early-career frontline employees, many Gen Zers are carefully managing their budgets. Enterprises that give them early access to wages they’ve earned right away can help these hourly employees better deal with unexpected expenses that might pop up, like car repairs. With this kind of benefit, frontline staff can arrange to be paid right after a shift or on a flexible schedule rather than having to wait for a scheduled bimonthly payday.

According to a 2022 survey by the American Payroll Association, 21% of respondents indicated that they wanted to be able to access their wages as they earn them instead of having to wait for a scheduled payday.

Employers in industries that rely on large staffs of frontline workers are well served by considering how they can better attract and retain Gen Z employees. This young generation’s life experience has shaped their unique values and priorities, and enterprises that take some simple steps to understand these workers will benefit. Equipping Gen Zers on the front line with digital tools and apps that streamline scheduling, task management, communication and training is an obvious first step, as these digital natives have grown up with smartphones in hand.

Offering scheduling flexibility, soliciting input via two-way communication channels and offering ample career development opportunities are other key ways to boost engagement among Gen Zers to help attract top talent and reduce churn.